Hunger, disease stalk millions in drought-hit Ethiopia

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The World Health Organisation says hunger, preventable diseases and poor healthcare are the main humanitarian risks facing millions in Ethiopia who are affected or displaced by drought, flooding and insecurity.

The Ethiopian Humanitarian Crisis Update says that WHO will expand its support to the Ethiopian Federal Ministry of Health and other partners to provide enhanced emergency health responses and ensure the health sector is prepared to handle future crises.

For three decades, annual drought and flooding have threatened the country's poorest, particularly pastoralists, farmers and nomadic peoples who rely on nature for their livelihoods.

Today, almost all areas in the country suffer from drought, while flooding in September in the western Gambela region affected 92,000 people and displaced 36,000. Crops and livestock have been severely affected.

WHO is leading the health cluster response to the crisis, working to improve co-ordination and information-sharing.

WHO and its humanitarian partners, including other UN agencies and NGOs, are also supporting the Emergency Health and Nutrition Task Force, chaired by the Federal Ministry of Health.

WHO is also helping the Ethiopian Ministry of Health in its efforts to reform its emergency preparedness, early warning, response and recovery systems.

For this purpose, WHO has allocated $6 million for humanitarian activities in its 2008-09 Plan of Action.

In light of the numerous crises Ethiopia is encountering, WHO requires an estimated $8 million to sustain humanitarian health activities for the next 12 months.

The Ethiopian government estimates that 4.2 million people need food assistance, including 75,000 children aged under five targeted by feeding programmes for survival.

Other major non-food gaps affecting people's health and livelihoods include limited national and local preparedness for recurrent disasters.

Notably, large-scale population displacement has been caused by drought, flooding and insecurity in neighbouring countries, particularly Somalia. Such displacements have given rise to disease epidemics.

While acute diarrhoea cases have reduced by 50 per cent since 2006 due to joint efforts by federal authorities, WHO and other health partners, key risk factors persist.

Meningitis epidemics occurred in three districts, and 50 measles outbreaks were recorded until July, all of which were controlled through mass vaccinations.

Malaria, influenza, polio and Rift Valley Fever remain threats.

Therefore, there is a need for disease and nutritional early warning surveillance and response systems.

Medicines, resources and other emergency supplies must be made available to national and international partners providing humanitarian health relief to people in need.

Also needed is strengthening of the national capacity in emergency preparedness as it makes the health sector better able to prevent predictable health emergencies linked to annual flooding and drought.

But strengthening WHO in-country capacity is critical for enhancing co-ordination and technical support.

It is worth noting, however, that WHO supported several assessments to reflect the real needs for disease control activities.

The communicable diseases surveillance has been strengthened to allow for the rapid detection of and response to outbreaks.